Organic or local?

I grew up on a small farm (30 or so acres) near Tacoma, Washington. We raised our own Herefords, I gathered eggs from my frizzle chickens, and we all enjoyed apples, plums and cherries from our fruit trees.  Neither of my parents were farmers by profession, though my grandfather owned a dairy farm in Oregon.  Eventually, my husband and I hope to move back to the family farm, if for no other reason than preserve it from the surrounding encroachment of houses.

I’ve been thinking about things I might do for fun or profit on the farm.  Home grown beef for sure.  A veggie garden – finally – on some of the only native soil left in the area.  We’ve got lots of options and the space to try them out.

Now back to the question in the title: organic or local?  Our family property has been managed gently since we moved there in the late 1960’s.  Nothing’s been added to the pasture soil other than what the animals deposited themselves.  We’ve had the apple trees sprayed yearly (a requirement because of apple maggot), but this is a targeted application with little affect outside the trees.  The cattle were never treated with hormones or other additives – they were about as free range as you can get.

I’ve heard from others that organic certification standards have become increasingly difficult to meet and some growers think they have become increasingly meaningless.  On the other hand, locally-grown products are becoming more available.

Is it time for a new standard – locally grown, with some requirements (e.g. soil tests) to demonstrate safety?

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Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - Books:

14 thoughts on “Organic or local?”

  1. Organic certification is an expensive ordeal… that once we really look at the process and fees, seemed to have become more of a marketing tool for bigger companies, rather than about organic or sustainable practices. We choose to invest our money in our own systems instead. Of course that means I have to buy in our Organic Veggies from a certified grower (but really veggie-starts are such low cost items that we look at them as loss leaders anyway…). We do grow all our own plants organically anyway and can claim we are the main local growers of cacti, succulents and xeric plants adapted to our climate. I think that is one of the reasons that we have become a regional draw and have so many customers from as far away as Sacramento and Santa Cruz.

    I think a local farm using sustainable systems that are easy for the customers to understand and appreciate, will be just as successful as a organic certified farm.

  2. I agree with this guy.  Especially this part:

    Whether something is grown organically might be one of the factors you use when you’re considering what to buy, but it is by no means the only one: For me, seasonality, locality and — above all, flavor — trump it.

    And if New Zealand lamb is more flavorful than the local version – I’m there, too.

  3. Whether something is grown organically might be one of the factors you use when you’re considering what to buy, but it is by no means the only one: For me, seasonality, locality and — above all, flavor — trump it.

  4. One of the things I probably should have mentioned in my posting was my concern with heavy metals in locally grown produce. For instance, people who “guerilla garden” by planting veggies along roadsides are courting serious risks in terms of lead, cadmium and other heavy metal contamination. I lik
    e buying local – but how does one ensure food safety?

  5. I have a friend in Lacey still living on the old family farm surrounded by developments. In fact, she’s still raising cattle on it. Noting has been done to the soil in more than a century. They have some wonderful wild flowers on the parts that are too steep to graze. She could tell you about the trials and tribulations of cattle farming these days.

  6. I agree with Hap. I would get some soil tests to make sure nothing is harmful in the soil and then employ sustainable measures. That is what I intend to do. Good Luck to you and Happy Farming!

  7. Linda, I’ve thought about trying to get our blueberry production certified. Holy cow, what a bewildering process. The IRS is more straightforward! The whole thing about having to work with a non-government, independent certifier (closest one to me is 220 miles); this licensed certifier is the one who actually determines your compliance with USDA NOP; not to mention they don’t do this for free (just to get started is $300-$500). I tried to find some guidelines for organic greenhouse production and was told by the Va. Dept. of Ag. rep that “they don’t exist”, she explained you have to reinvent the wheel by doing the research (through a 300+ page document) as to what products allowed, etc. Maybe I’ll save the rest of this rant for a post…

  8. Holly, I truly think it’s time for another paradigm. I think Hap is exactly right – organic certification works for big businesses, but not little farmers. Maybe we should consider a grant through the USDA Small Farms program to figure out guidelines for “safe and local” products. What do you think?

  9. Lucky, you, Linda! Local sounds good; organic may be harder to achieve, though can you work in that direction, without necessarily designating your farm as organic? I agree with the soil testing idea– can’t go wrong there…

  10. If you are just growing for yourself no need to get certified organic. And if you are going to sell at a farmer’s market there is no reason you can’t put up a sign declaring “locally grown on native soil with no chemicals.”

    I feel like anything that is trying to mindful of the earth is better than traditional agriculture. I personally buy local over organic. Although I will buy organic when local isn’t an option. I just don’t eat much meat and our eggs come from a local urban homesteader. It’s all personal choice.

  11. Since, if I recall correctly, Frito Lay recently tried to pitch their chips as “local”, I would love to see “local” actually mean something as a food designation. It’s a complicated issue, though. Is a lemon ever local to Maine? Is 50 miles local? 250? What if your closest grocery is 60 miles away? Could Frito-Lay ever really be local, if you lived next door to the factory?

    I run a very small organic farm, but constantly go to bat for my neighbor who is a conventional grower. He gets sneered at by the local purists, but he knows and cares deeply for his land and produce. Even though we will never use the same growing methods, I respect his choices.

    This is slightly off-topic, but I am of many minds in response to the article linked to above in the LA Times – on one hand, a tomato should certainly taste like a great tomato. But there’s a suspiciously privileged undertone that I would like to see stuffed in a cardboard box and carried to the compost, especially since I hear it so often in my upscale east coast town: “It’s all about meeeeee, the consumer, and what I waaaaaaant!” Sometimes what the season offers is imperfect, and perhaps the burden of making something taste good should be as much up to the consumer as it is on the farmer. I would like to see consumers more willing to give in on their demands for year-round perfection in favor of a wiser, more just, and more responsible food system.
    Notice I have not insisted that a better food system has to be purely local, or purely organic – it doesn’t. Consumers should be educated enough about farming to know that potatoes aren’t all magically the same size and shape, and corn sometimes has worms. And it’s still safe and healthy.

  12. My first thought was to suggest that local (non-organic) producers could somehow advertise their practices, such as soil test results, etc. This led me to this question, Linda: What do you consider to be the most important “guidelines” or practices for local farmers to ensure consumer safety? Is soil testing for heavy metals at the top of the list?

  13. Daniel, testing for heavy metals is certainly at the top! I’ve been giving a seminar on vegetable garden safety and the importance of soil testing. Heavy metal contamination of soil is insidious and invisible. Arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, zinc, and mercury are all right up there (especially the first 3).

  14. Local growing can require much higher inputs and be much, much less ecologically sound. It sounds warm and fuzzy, but the reality doesn’t measure up. As far back as the Roman empire, local growing was exchanged for importing from a more naturally productive region for the most imporant foods.

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